Letter From The Editor - Issue 64 - August 2018

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Writing Fantasy

  
Another Dimension
  Book Reviews by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
January 2018

Title: Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams
Author: Philip K. Dick
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

This latest reprint volume of Philip K. Dick stories is a companion to the new television anthology series of the same name, which adapts the nine short stories and one novelette contained herein into ten standalone episodes. In addition to the stories, the book contains ten separate introductions, one per tale, written by the screenplay writers who adapted that particular story. This ancillary material will be of interest to viewers of the series wanting insight into the screenplay writers’ thought processes and the differences between the written stories and filmed episodes. The intros probably hold little interest for general readers, though, as they are generally short, repetitive, and don’t say things even casual readers won’t have heard before (for example, “the questions that drove him [PKD] concerned the very core of life itself: What is human? What is real?”). Ronald D. Moore’s introduction to the first story also dismayed me a bit: “Very little remains of this story in the show, but the heart, and perhaps more importantly, the brains behind the episode originate in this tale.” At any rate, the value of the book clearly rests on the stories themselves, and so it behooves us to ask, how good is this selection?

The copyright page provides two clues. These stories appeared between 1953 and 1955, right at the outset of Dick’s decades-long career (his first professional story was published only one year earlier, in 1952, and he didn’t publish his first novel until 1955). While a few authors may begin their careers writing classics of the field (Robert Heinlein’s “—And He Built a Crooked House”, for instance, was his third published story; Ted Chiang’s “Tower of Babylon” was his first) most take some time to perfect their craft. Dick didn’t publish masterpieces from the get-go, but he was incredibly prolific, and by 1953 he was certainly producing solid short form work that can still be enjoyed today (his 1953 story “Colony”, for instance, holds up well). The second clue is the stories’ publication venues. Some appeared in genre staple magazines such as Amazing Stories, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Galaxy, but most of them were published in lesser ventures like If, Imagination, Science Fiction Adventures, Future Science Fiction and Startling Stories. What we have here, then, are entertaining yarns hitting on Dick’s major themes, but steeped in many of the pulpy conventions of the magazine markets of the day (“Sally swept breathlessly into the living room, her breasts quivering with excitement”).

In “Exhibit Piece” George Miller steps into a replica of the past he has created as part of his job, only to find himself assuming the role of one the replica’s inhabitants, memories of this replicated life competing for plausibility with the memories of his “real” life. Is he truly from the past, with his futuristic life a fantasy, or is this past a psychotic delusion created in order to try to escape his time? Dick presents a clever third alternative, with a nice zinger of an ending that ironically upends Miller’s earlier assertion, “There isn’t anything I don’t know about the twentieth century.” Intersecting times also feature in “The Commuter,” as a man at a train station asks a ticket seller for a commute book to Macon Heights, a destination the customer insists is real but which the seller can’t locate on any map. Again the question arises, is the prospective buyer delusional? Is Macon Heights symbolic of the desire to retreat into the past or is it a real place? The plot resolution here toys with the notion of the past not being fully “jelled,” and having a kind of butterfly effect on the present. “The Impossible Planet” brings this loosely connected triplet of stories about the weight of history to a close. A three-hundred-year-old woman’s insistence to be taken to the mythical planet of Earth provides a poignant reflection on how the reality of the past may be subverted by ignorance and the desire for profit. (Some specifics of the “legend of lost Earth” trope in this story anticipate later treatments by other authors, such as the central quest in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and Earth).

In “The Hanging Stranger,” Ed Loyce discovers a hanging body on the street, and no one seems to mind. The tale doubles as a wrenching parable on social norms—at one point someone attempts to placate Loyce’s horror by saying it’s all “on the level”—and as a paranoid Lovecraftian thriller featuring “winged insects from another realm of being,” creatures whose description is “pseudo-men. Imitation men. Insects with ability to disguise themselves as men. Like other insects familiar to Earth. Protective coloration. Mimicry” surely foreshadows the film Mimic. “The Father-Thing” and “Human Is” both deal in Invasion of the Body Snatchers scenarios, alternately depicting the vulnerability of the suburban family unit and satirically relishing the advantages of having a less-than-lovable partner taken over. “The Hood Maker” combines political intrigue with the disturbing possibilities of a world in which telepaths—“teeks”—have access to everyone’s thoughts and can subject citizens to loyalty scans at will. Babylon 5’s Psi Corps anyone? “Sales Pitch,” “Foster You’re Dead” and “Autofac” all explore various aspects of consumerism culture and forced obsolescence with an impressive range of cynicism, tenderness and surrealism.

If you’re a newbie to Philip K. Dick and these stories have whetted your appetite, I’d unhesitatingly recommend the stand-alone collection Selected Stories (2002; reprint 2013) as a follow-up. It replicates a few of these but contains many other classics not here available. If you want to go even deeper, the five-volume Collected Stories from Citadel Press should satisfy. Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams succeeds in showcasing the work of a master beginning to transcend the creaky storytelling techniques of early 1950s popular magazines and finding his own powerful voice along the way. I for one hope that it does more than that and launches readers on their own journeys of discovery.

Title: The End We Start From
Author: Megan Hunter
Publisher: Grove Press

Every year the publishing tide brings in a swell of new dystopias and tales of environmental collapse, and I typically read one or two to try and take the temperature of these sub-genres. I haven’t read any like Megan Hunter’s remarkably compelling and intimate debut novel, The End We Start From. The title is based on poetry by T. S. Eliot, from his Four Quartets, quoted in the epigraph—if the title’s prepositional ending bothers you, now you know who to blame—which perfectly sets the tone for the hauntingly lyrical odyssey to follow. “I am hours from giving birth,” begins the novel’s narrator, “from the event I thought would never happen to me, and R has gone up a mountain.” From the start we’re right there with her, intrigued by the event she alludes to (who is R? why has he gone up a mountain?) and by the head-on quality of her statements.

As you’ll notice within the first few pages of Hunter’s short novel, her narrative approach is highly stylized. The novel is comprised of twelve numbered but untitled chapters, each of them sub-divided into a dozen or more micro-scenes composed of anywhere between one to five paragraphs, each in turn made up of between one and four or so lines. The effect is immediate: a constant re-setting of the scene, an incessant flickering or shuttering of our awareness of the story in space and time. I’ll admit I waded into these waters with some trepidation, nervous that the highly fragmentary nature of the text would keep me at bay from the narrator’s experiences and emotions, that the novel would become a repetitive exercise in staccato cleverness blunting any possibility of rich prose rhythms. I needn’t have worried. Hunter’s writing is thoughtful and poetic, full of arresting imagery and imaginative descriptive transitions that bridge the real with the metaphorical (“This is the closest you can get to it: the void, the nothing, the black lapping mouth of the sea and the black arching back of the sky”). It’s incantatory and dense. As a result, you need to slow down to appreciate the implications of each line, unpack their significance. Subtle comments sometimes signal major plot points, too, so even if you’re in it for the story more than the aesthetic, it’s best not to rush.

And what is the story? After many attempts, the narrator and her husband R conceive. Thirty-two weeks into the protagonist’s pregnancy authorities announce that the water-line is “rising father than they thought. It is creeping faster. A calculation error. A badly plotted movie, sensors out at sea.” By thirty-eight weeks the couple discovers they will have to relocate from their home, as they are within “the Gulp Zone.” So begins a harrowing chronicle of childbirth, survival with relatives, in shelters, separation, life on an island, and the many self-realizations brought on by these events. This plot may be described as bare bones, which is apt, since the protagonist’s voice and consciousness furnish it with all the body it needs. Hunter’s impressionistic approach works extremely well for the story she’s chosen to tell, because it evokes the mindscape of someone dealing with loss and trauma, incapable of sustained discursive thought or analysis. The circumstances of a dissolving world force the narrator to be nimble, adaptable, ever-ready to shift gears. Her experiences are compressed, her thoughts often scattered. The novel’s imaginary world is thus perfectly suited to its voice.

Other forces are artfully balanced as well. As the narrator creates life and contributes something of herself to the world, externally manifesting the very life-force of the human species through the act of procreation, nature destroys life and encroaches upon civilization, testing humanity’s mettle and endurance. Activities that once seemed important, like her job, are revealed to have been illusory in their significance: “We thought we were like a family. All the lunches we ate together. All the days of sharing air, of letting ourselves out into the same place. Turns out, there was nothing there.” As these outer structures crumble, new structures of internal meaning related to her child, and her role as a mother, arise. Some of my favorite moments are those of quiet reflection: “Memories are starting to leak: the faint, perfumed waft of the photocopier in my office. The cold room filled with machines, the small window, like a cloister.”

Nicholas Meyer once reflected that even if the Star Trek bottle is always the same, very different wines may be poured into it. I’m starting to think that near-future disaster stories and dystopias might be like that, capable of taking on any flavor an artist can conceive. Megan Hunter has here filled the environmental disaster bottle with an intoxicating brew, and I can’t wait to see what she concocts next.

Read more by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro


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